It’s hard to imagine a weaker, more impotent response to Moscow’s move against Ukraine than what the Biden administration announced Monday evening: an executive order imposing limited sanctions on two separatist regions of eastern Ukraine, the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. The sanctions are a response to the Kremlin’s decision Monday to recognize these rebel-held regions as independent states. Early Tuesday morning, Russia deployed troops to these areas, calling them “peacekeepers.”
In a statement, the White House said the sanctions on Donetsk and Luhansk are separate from the “swift and severe economic measures” it would impose on Moscow, “should Russia further invade Ukraine.”
I’m sure Vladimir Putin is quaking in his boots. No further invasions, sir! That’s quite far enough.
More than anything, these incredibly unimportant sanctions from President Joe Biden underscore how the entire humiliating Ukraine crisis is a direct result of Biden’s weak foreign policy and feckless appeasement of Russia over the past year. A robust policy of deterrence, like maintaining the Trump administration’s sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that Biden waived last May, might have prevented the crisis.
But now it’s too late. The thing about deterrence is that you have to use it before your opponent makes his move. Russian forces are now on the ground in eastern Ukraine, and they’re probably there to stay. The time to get tough on Moscow and prevent a clash with Ukraine has passed. Sanctions, whether from the U.S. or from the European Union, are not going to force Putin to change his mind and retreat. Instead, these half-measures will give us the worst possible outcome: all the downsides of an actual military conflict, which is now certain, without the preceding benefits of deterrence.
What might those benefits have been? For one thing, we might have forced Putin to narrow the scope of his ambitions vis-à-vis Ukraine and engage in a negotiated settlement to the standoff — not because Putin wanted that, but because we made him understand that that’s all we would give him.
Too bad Biden’s team came into office and, by dropping Nord Stream 2 sanctions, immediately signaled to Putin that now was the time to press his longstanding aims in Ukraine. The pity of it is that the Ukraine crisis represented a rare possibility for a negotiated settlement in which all parties got some of what they wanted.
Indeed, the situation of Ukraine is historically unique. As Paul Pillar of Georgetown University has written: “The unusual circumstances of the historical Russian connections with Crimea and Nikita Khrushchev’s transfer of the territory’s administration from one subordinate unit of the USSR to another, followed many years later by achievement of independence by those units, does not really have an equivalent elsewhere.”
Given this history, my friend Mario Loyola has argued in these pages recently that with its current borders Ukraine can have territorial integrity or political independence, but it can’t have both. Remember, Ukraine’s present-day borders are the result of the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which had some forty years earlier given Ukraine artificially enlarged borders, including Odessa and Sevastopol, Russia’s most important commercial and naval ports. Once Ukraine broke from Moscow in 2014, its 1991 borders became untenable — and everyone, including the Ukrainians, knew it. Russia was never going to accept a westward-oriented Ukraine, still less NATO membership for Ukraine.
Admitting that, says Loyola, doesn’t amount to appeasement, and in fact it opens the way for a negotiated settlement:
Russia has continued to be a malign force in world affairs. But not all its grievances are unreasonable, and it is a dangerous mistake for Kiev and Washington to reject them all out of hand.
The United States and its NATO allies should recognize Kiev’s decision to prioritize political independence over territory, for it helps clarify the outlines of a peaceful settlement. The Ukraine crisis can’t last forever. And while Russia surely knows it can’t have everything it wants, if it gets some of what it vitally needs, perhaps Ukraine can, too.
But for any of that to happen, the United States needed to have a firm, steady hand in its dealings with Moscow. In this, Biden failed miserably, coming into office with a lot of bluster about how he was going to take a firm line on Putin, that he alone knew how to deal with Moscow. During the 2020 campaign, Biden even suggested, ludicrously, that Putin didn’t want him to become president because of how tough Biden would be on him.
The whole thing is reminiscent of the Obama administration’s handling of the Syrian civil war. Not just the weakness of President Obama’s embarrassing “red line” fiasco but also his refusal to do anything militarily to weaken the Assad regime before calling for a negotiated settlement.
The draft Syria resolution that the Obama White House sent to Congress in August 2013 authorized military force in connection to the use of chemical weapons but not in connection to any long-term U.S. goals in Syria, like a negotiated settlement that saw Bashar Assad removed from power. At the time, Assad’s removal was the stated policy position of the Obama White House. But by separating military force and a negotiated political settlement, as if the two could not work together, Obama guaranteed that any military force that was authorized would not alter the facts on the ground, and therefore would not weaken Assad’s position going into negotiations.
In the end, there were no negotiations because Assad never had need for them. He knew that the U.S. and its allies would not authorize military force sufficient to change the reality on the ground, so he crushed the rebel forces, killing a half-million of his own countrymen in the process.
In Ukraine, we now have a similar dynamic playing out, with the Biden administration calling for sanctions and international pressure after Moscow has already made its move. The time to put pressure on Putin and declare that an invasion of Ukraine would be a “red line,” has passed. Now, Biden is reduced to haggling publicly with our European allies over sanctions that will certainly be watered down given Europe’s energy dependence on Russia. Whatever they come up with, it will do very little to alter the facts on the ground, and do nothing at all to deter whatever additional plans Putin has for Ukraine.